Thailand’s Temples: A Guide to the Most Iconic Temples and What to Expect When Visiting
General Etiquette for Visiting Thai Temples
Thailand, with its rich Buddhist heritage, is home to some of the world’s most beautiful temples. When visiting these sacred places, it’s essential to approach with respect and understanding of the local customs and traditions. Here’s a guide to help you navigate the etiquette of temple visits in Thailand.
Dress Code: The Importance of Modest Clothing
Wear clothes that cover the shoulders and knees. Avoid sleeveless tops, short skirts, or shorts. Lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and trousers or skirts that extend below the knee are ideal.
It’s customary to remove one’s shoes before entering temple buildings. Many temples provide racks or designated areas outside for this purpose. It’s a good idea to wear easy-to-remove shoes or sandals.
Hats should be removed when entering temple compounds and interiors, showing respect to the sacred surroundings.
Behaviours to Avoid
Pointing Feet at Buddha statues
In Thai culture, the feet are considered the lowest part of the body and pointing them at something or someone is deemed disrespectful. Always sit cross-legged or with your feet tucked behind you when near Buddha statues.
Raising One’s Head Above Monks
Monks hold a revered position in Thai society. If you find yourself seated and a monk is nearby, ensure your head is not higher than theirs. If monks are seated, you should sit or kneel.
Public Displays of Affection
Refrain from holding hands, hugging, or kissing within temple grounds, as such actions are seen as inappropriate in these spiritual places.
Donations and Offerings
Making a Contribution
Many temples survive on the generosity of locals and visitors alike. If you wish to make a donation, look for designated donation boxes, usually found near the main hall or entrance.
At some temples, you might notice locals offering flowers, incense, and candles to Buddha images. If you wish to participate, purchase these items from stalls at or near the temple entrance. Always light incense in threes, representing the Buddha, his teachings (Dhamma), and the monk community (Sangha).
Respecting the Temple Grounds
Temples are places of worship and meditation. Keep conversations low, turn off mobile phones or set them to silent mode, and avoid making loud noises.
While most temples allow photography, always look for signs or ask local staff before taking pictures, especially inside the halls. Some areas might be considered too sacred for photographs.
Keep the temple grounds clean. Use the rubbish bins provided or take your rubbish with you.
Understanding and following the general etiquette will not only enhance your temple-visiting experience but will also ensure that these places of worship and contemplation continue to be revered and respected by all.
Bangkok’s Iconic Temples
Bangkok, the bustling capital of Thailand, is a harmonious blend of modernity and tradition. Amidst its skyscrapers and traffic jams, one finds serene temples standing as testaments to the city’s profound Buddhist roots.
Here’s an introduction to some of Bangkok’s most iconic temples and what makes them special.
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
Located within the historic precinct of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand.
It houses the venerated Emerald Buddha, a statue made of jade or jasper, clothed in gold and believed to bring prosperity to the country.
What to See
Apart from the main chapel (Ubosot), the temple grounds feature stunning hand-painted murals depicting scenes from the Ramakien, Thailand’s national epic. The intricately carved and gilded decorations, giant guardian figures, and the surrounding galleries are an artistic marvel.
Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
Situated just south of the Grand Palace, Wat Pho is renowned for its colossal Reclining Buddha statue, which measures 46 metres in length and is covered in gold leaf.
The temple complex is vast and contains more than 1,000 Buddha images, the most in any Thai temple. The long corridors are adorned with intricate paintings and sculptures.
Famous Massage School
Wat Pho is also recognised as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. The temple grounds include a massage school, where visitors can receive authentic treatments or even enrol in courses.
Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn)
Standing majestically on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Arun is easily identifiable by its iconic Khmer-style tower (prang) decorated with colourful porcelain.
Best Times to Visit
True to its name, the Temple of Dawn is best viewed at sunrise when the first rays illuminate its spires, though sunset views from across the river are equally mesmerising. Climbing the steep steps of the central prang rewards visitors with a panoramic view of the river and surrounding areas.
Wat Arun is associated with the ancient Indian god of dawn, Aruna. It is believed to symbolise the birth of the Rattanakosin era and the founding of the new capital, Bangkok.
Visiting these temples offers not only a spiritual experience but also an insight into Thailand’s rich history, art, and culture. When in Bangkok, these are the temples that should be on every traveller’s must-visit list.
Whether you’re marvelling at the intricate designs of Wat Phra Kaew, admiring the grandeur of Wat Pho’s Reclining Buddha, or soaking in the views from Wat Arun, you’re sure to leave with a deeper appreciation for Thailand’s timeless traditions.
Chiang Mai’s Historic Temples
Chiang Mai, often referred to as the ‘Rose of the North’, is the cultural heart of Thailand. Surrounded by mountains and beautiful landscapes, the city has an impressive array of temples that echo its deep-rooted Buddhist traditions and the grandeur of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. Here’s a glimpse into some of Chiang Mai’s most historic temples.
Wat Phra Singh
As one of the most revered temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh is the epitome of Lanna architecture.
The temple houses the famous Phra Singh Buddha image in the Viharn Lai Kham, a chapel adorned with exquisite murals narrating Jataka tales and traditional Lanna life. The golden stupa (chedi) and intricately carved woodwork throughout the temple are other highlights.
During Songkran, the Thai New Year, the Phra Singh Buddha is paraded around Chiang Mai in a grand procession, an event that attracts both locals and tourists.
Wat Chedi Luang
Once the tallest structure in Chiang Mai, the temple’s massive chedi (pagoda) partially collapsed in an earthquake in the 16th century but still stands as an imposing relic.
Despite its damaged state, the chedi’s elephant carvings and the Naga staircase reflect the temple’s erstwhile splendour. The temple complex also houses the city pillar (Lak Mueang) and a beautiful viharn with a grand Buddha statue.
Wat Chedi Luang offers a unique ‘Monk Chat’ programme where visitors can converse with English-speaking monks, providing valuable insight into monastic life and Buddhist teachings.
Wat Suan Dok
The Royal Temple’s Significance
Originally a royal flower garden, Wat Suan Dok was donated to a revered monk to build a temple. Today, it’s known as the royal temple because of the several white mausoleums containing the ashes of Chiang Mai’s royal family.
Unlike other temples, Wat Suan Dok features an open-air assembly hall. The sprawling temple grounds are dotted with whitewashed chedis and a massive golden pagoda, housing a relic of the Buddha.
The temple is renowned for its monastic schools. Tourists often attend meditation workshops and Dhamma talks, making it a hub for those keen on understanding Buddhism more deeply.
Chiang Mai, with its wealth of temples, offers a spiritual and historical journey that’s unmatched. Whether you’re wandering the serene corridors of Wat Phra Singh, pondering the historic remnants of Wat Chedi Luang, or soaking in the tranquillity of Wat Suan Dok, you’ll be touched by the city’s soulful reverence to its past and the teachings of Buddhism.
Ayutthaya’s Ancient Ruins
Once the thriving capital of the Kingdom of Siam, Ayutthaya is now an archaeological marvel. For over four centuries, it stood as a testament to Siamese prosperity, only to be ravaged by the Burmese in 1767.
Today, its temple ruins serve as poignant reminders of its former glory and have earned it a spot as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here’s an exploration of some of Ayutthaya’s most iconic temple ruins.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Often referred to as the ‘Kingdom’s Spiritual Centre’, this temple was the holiest on the Ayutthaya island and exclusively used for royal ceremonies.
Three Iconic Chedis
The site is dominated by three bell-shaped chedis built to enshrine the ashes of three Ayutthayan kings. Lined in a row, they form the most recognisable image of Ayutthaya.
The Grand Palace
Adjacent to the temple was the Grand Palace. Though it no longer stands, one can still trace its foundations and imagine its former magnificence.
The Buddha Head in Tree Roots
The temple is most famed for the stone Buddha head entwined within the roots of a banyan tree. It’s a mysterious and iconic image that draws photographers and travellers from around the globe.
Wat Mahathat was one of the most significant monasteries of its time, not just as a place of worship but also as the residence of the Supreme Patriarch or leader of the Thai Buddhist monks.
The temple grounds are expansive, with numerous stupas, Buddha statues (many beheaded during the invasion), and Khmer-style prangs. It’s an ideal site for those keen on delving into ancient architecture and sculpture.
Inspired by Angkor Wat, this temple is a stunning example of Khmer architecture. Its layout represents Buddhist cosmology, with the central prang symbolising Mount Meru, the spiritual centre of the universe.
Best Times to Visit
Sunset views from Wat Chaiwatthanaram are sublime, casting a golden hue over its ancient structures and making it a favourite spot for evening visits.
Surrounding the central prang are smaller prangs and chapels, which were once monastic quarters and assembly halls. Exploring them offers insights into the daily lives of monks in ancient Siam.
Ayutthaya’s ruins are more than just historical artefacts; they are windows into a bygone era of architectural splendour, spiritual devotion, and a kingdom’s indomitable spirit.
As you walk among the stone relics, the whispers of monks chanting, the clang of temple bells, and the hushed conversations of royalty might just reach your ears, taking you on a journey back in time.